Ghostwriting: Erenburg and Grossman’s Black Book on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union

On Tuesday, September 17, Dr. Anja Tippner, Professor of Slavic Literature and Culture at Hamburg University, presented her new research in a lecture titled “Ghostwriting: Erenburg and Grossman’s Black Book on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union,” the first of the 2013-2014 academic year’s Noontime Scholars Lecture series. Dr. Tippner has written the monographs Alterity, Translation and Culture: Chekhov’s Prose Between Russia and Germany (Frankfurt/New York, 1997) and The Permanent Avant-Garde? Surrealism in Prague (Cologne/Weimar, 2009), as well as numerous articles on Jewish narratives in Eastern Europe and socialist children’s literature.

Dr. Tippner’s lecture examined the remembrance of trauma in the Soviet Union after World War II, specifically Holocaust memory narratives. After 1945, the Soviet victory over the Nazis became a part of the official myth. Remembering wartime experiences was difficult, unless it fit the ideology of heroism and the triumph of communism over fascism. Within that historical context, Dr. Tippner distinguished between two types of memory, individual and collective/institutional. In the Soviet Union, individual memory had to conform to the collective/institutional memory. Those individuals who had suffered during the war (e.g. soldiers, partisans, Holocaust survivors, prisoners of war) could not tell their personal stories and were left out of memorials. “Their private pain went underground,” Dr. Tippner said because the Soviet culture did not acknowledge wartime trauma.

Ilya Erenburg

Ilya Erenburg

Since the Holocaust and its victims did not conform to that model of heroism and victory, their memories were unmentionable. However, beginning in the late 1940s, a time of growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, there was resistance against such a romanticized, fictionalized story of the war. To counteract the silencing of Jewish survivors’ voices, the Russian Jewish writers Ilya Erenburg and Vasilii Grossman compiled a Black Book on the Holocaust. It was a collection of survivors’ accounts, letters, and other documentary material that recorded Nazi atrocities against the Jews. The book covered all areas of the Soviet Union, especially Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Complementing local accounts from those areas were reports from the concentration camps in Poland. Erenburg and Grossman intended to publish the text in Russian, English, Hebrew, and German.

Unfortunately, Soviet politics interfered with the project. Erenburg, the Black Book‘s first editor, had to step down in 1945 because of his unforgiving position against Germany, which contrasted with the Soviet Union’s new policy of ameliorating relations. The notion of revenge against the wartime enemy became out-of-date. As a result, Grossman became the new editor. When a version of the Black Book appeared in 1946, it contained three types of material: diaries, letters, and journalistic reports. The text confronted the Russian reader with Jewish suffering and resistance. Moreover, Grossman included accounts of Soviet anti-Semitism and atrocities, which were taboo. His purpose was to stress the universal nature of anti-Semitism; it was not only a German problem. Overall, the tone of the Black Book highlighted how Jews must defend themselves against anti-Semitism. The final editing stages of the Black Book occurred amid more overt Soviet anti-Semitism. By 1948, publication of the Black Book became impossible. It was destroyed, and the drafts existed only in the archives. It finally appeared in print in 1991, when it was published in Kiev from a version located in Jerusalem.

Vasilii Grossman

Vasilii Grossman

While much scholarship on the Black Book has either viewed it as a historical document or studied its publication history, not its actual content, Dr. Tippner’s research is the first to look at the book as a literary text. She pointed out that well-known writers such as Viktor Shklovsky, Margarita Aliger, and Vera Inber all edited the documents that comprised the book. The Black Book is unique in highlighting the process of aesthetic transformation to record testimonies. The text deftly interweaves primary and secondary witnesses. Dr. Tippner observed that both the primary witness (one who experienced the events firsthand) and the secondary witness (one who analyzes those events intellectually) are necessary for a literary text. The primary witness needs the secondary witness as a listener. He or she serves as an indelible link to the past.  Sometimes, the primary witness is unable to relive painful memories or cannot provide an organized account of his or her suffering.  Hence, a secondary witness is essential to produce a coherent text. For the Black Book, artists and writers became the secondary witnesses whose role was to make sense of something incomprehensible. In order to be heard, the original testimony needed rewriting. The Black Book combined written and oral testimony, a hybrid of narrative and documentary sources.

Furthermore, Dr. Tippner identified the Black Book‘s editors as ghostwriters, both in the usual sense of anonymous, invisible writers, and as writers who are actual ghosts. Many witnesses to the Holocaust were killed; they haunted the editors with their suffering. Not only did the editors collect the documents and transcribe the testimonies for the survivors and witnesses, but also for the cause of Holocaust remembrance. Dr. Tippner specifically used the example of the writer Vera Inber, who compiled a collection of wartime events in Odessa as a collage. She complemented her narrative with short quotes from the survivors. The people she featured stood out as individuals. Her editorial comments collapsed the distance between her own testimony and those of the witnesses. Yet, there still existed an element of conformity to the Soviet literary model. One problem about the Black Book that Dr. Tippner indicated was that often the editing brought the original testimonies closer to Soviet ideology about wartime glory and how the survivors were good Soviet citizens. Although the editors proved the accounts’ authenticity through providing  the names, dates , residences, and photos of the survivors, they still subsumed the original accounts. Inber’s contribution emphasized Soviet solidarity, where Russians and Ukrainians helped their Jewish neighbors. Other writers followed her practice.  In the Black Book, Holocaust survivors expressed their desire to reconstruct Soviet society. Thus, the multiplicity of voices depicted in the text did not result in a multiplicity of perspectives.

Throughout the lecture, Dr. Tippner underscored how remembering and commemorating trauma were difficult within the Soviet experience.  Along with grief and loss, trauma was an utterly inappropriate emotion in a victorious socialist state. Collective discussion of the war’s less favorable aspects were muted since the official story omitted wartime trauma. Jewish survivors could not tell their stories independently or have them become part of the Soviet literary canon.

Dr. Tippner concluded with connecting the Black Book to today’s Russia. Although the Black Book discusses events that happened seventy years ago, it is still relevant to Russia, where memories of the Holocaust largely remain silenced. Consequently, Russian literature still lacks published memoirs and autobiographies of Holocaust survivors.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to write a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs, with a particular focus on the writer and translator Lilianna Lungina.

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